A civic Phoenix story is promised and effectively delivered in “Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ‘N Roll,” even if there’s little doubt that what much of the audience will be hoping for from this documentary is Bruce, the whole Bruce and nothing but the Bruce. The film satisfies a good portion of that craving with its illumination of the club scene that formed the star’s early musical life, but Springsteen gradually becomes less of the focus in a doc that nobly aims to tell the story of a New Jersey seaside town’s rise, instant fall and veeeeery gradual comeback through the prism of music.
The middle portion of the film could be subtitled “Born to Be Run Down,” or maybe “Blinded by the Blight.” Ironically enough, Asbury Park’s trajectory became pretty much the exact opposite of Springsteen’s, right about the time he made both of them jointly famous. You might or might not leave “Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ‘N Roll” wishing there was just a bit more of Springsteen’s own latter-day relationship with the area incorporated into the film. But you’ve got to admit that, as story arcs go, between Bruce and Asbury Park, the town has the more dramatic one.
Springsteen once had an instrumental track called “Paradise by the C,” and whether or not he had Asbury Park in mind when he came up with it, the city certainly is made to sound paradisiacal for much of its existence, at least for anyone with a fondness for the intermingling of black and white music forms … and, sure, arcades, too. Asbury Park literally had a right and wrong side of the railroad tracks, with the end of town closer to its seaside attractions being the privileged one. Yet, as Springsteen and several past and present members of the E Street Band tell it on camera, white kids felt fine going to see jazz greats like Kenny Burrell and Grant Green at the Orchid Lounge on the predominantly black west side in the ’60s, and black kids went east to join the rock bands playing original music in the all-ages Upstage club. Keyboard player David Sancious, one of two African-Americans in the original lineup of the E Street Band, says “we didn’t lead with our interracialness,” because it never occurred to anyone in that scene that color-blindness could be a gimmick.
Director Tom Jones has done such a good job of painting Asbury Park as a rock-meets-soul heaven on earth that it comes as perhaps more of a jolt than it should when the film gets to Asbury Park’s nationally newsmaking riots in 1970. A lot of the city’s residents who hadn’t taken up instruments apparently never got the all-is-harmonious memo, and fostering resentments resulted in burning businesses, with the poorer west side being hit hardest — the film says 75 percent of the retail space on Springwood Ave. burned or closed down and never came back. The boardwalk suffered more from ennui than smoke damage, but Asbury Park ceased to become a destination, and a town that once had 73 clubs or live venues was reduced to a handful.
Who saved Asbury Park, as a welcoming tourist trap, if not wholly integrated and healed burg? It was The Gays, at least in the movie’s narrative shorthand, with producer Shep Pettibone coming in to open a gay-oriented but inclusive hotel and club that helped guide the city back to the land of boutiquey gentrification. That same renaissance hasn’t hit the west side, which is still seen in overhead shots to have blocks’ worth of vacant lots on once-major throroughfares. The movie isn’t quite sure how to treat this imbalance of fates — it’s acknowledged at length, to be sure, but the filmmakers are undeniably civic boosters, so the sight of a free concert being given on the city’s west side is played up for symbolic hope, lest tourists come to town with too many sad feelings about the lack of tunes across the tracks.
But while the film may feel at times like it was made under the auspices of an Asbury Park tourism board, it’s at least a theoretical tourism board that has a good awareness that a dystopia doesn’t shift back to utopia overnight, or even over a neat 50 years. The boosterism seems warranted, anyway, every time the music kicks back in: It can’t just be false hopes fueling a sound as warm as the E Street Band’s or Joe Grushecky’s or “I Don’t Wanna Go Home,” the Steven Van Zandt-written, Southside Johnny-performed anthem that inevitably plays out in full over the closing credits.
Springsteen pops up enough times in the movie that it’s a surprise to learn that it was initially completed without him — or maybe not such a surprise, given what a tough get he’s known to be. (The Boss came on board after seeing an assemblage of footage at the Asbury Park Film Festival two years ago and asking, “Why am I not in this?” … a question the filmmakers had spent a much longer time wondering.) You see a succession of stills of an impossibly long-haired, shirtless and skinny Springsteen on stage at the Upstage club as the musicians and patrons of the late ’60s testify to his insane charisma: “By the time I got offstage, I’d made a lot of new friends,” he laughs, testifying a little bit himself. Without any footage of his band Steel Mill to work with, director Jones intercuts all these expert witnesses in a way that does a surprisingly effective job of making you get the gist anyway. And it doesn’t hurt that Springsteen is being interviewed in the dilapidated remnants of the Upstage, vacant for 48 years now. (The movie’s last post-credits shot is a poignant one of the star coming down the creaky stairs, saying, “Last man out. … Time for something new.”)
You may wish the film didn’t essentially abandon any Springsteen subplot before it even gets to his first album coming out — which is titled “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ,” after all. Maybe, having landed him for their essential interview, the filmmakers wanted to err on the side of not making it any more about him than necessary. But some interesting questions never get addressed, as a result, like: How much of what tourist trade there was during the lean decades did come from Springsteen cultists? Did everyone in town celebrate being so inextricably tied in the popular mindset to one local hero? And are gay Springsteen fans now the happiest tourists of all?
But for fans who may not so be into the movie’s interesting discussions of urban redevelopment issues, faith will be rewarded at the end with concert scenes from a Paramount Theatre benefit guest appearance that have the star digging into his favorites from the Chuck Berry and Little Richard catalogs. Maybe the best performance footage, though, is of the Lakehouse Junior Pros, a group of pre-teen musicians who formed at a new studio in town devoted to providing youngsters the type of music education that underfunded schools can’t. That this local institution exists assures you that Jones’ warm and fuzzy feelings for the Asbury Park of 2019 aren’t just hype.
“Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ‘N Roll” is screening nationwide on two nights, May 22 and 29.